Once again, Packers putting together late push for a playoff spot

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The outcome of Sunday Night Football between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings on New Year’s Eve was never really in doubt. The Vikings were starting their fifth-round rookie quarterback as a last resort. They had already lost star tight end T.J. Hockenson to an ACL tear the week prior. Their complex defense was in danger of being figured out.

Meanwhile, the Packers have been trending up. First-year starter Jordan Love has shown tangible growth every week. Despite the fact they wouldn’t have their top two corners in Jaire Alexander (suspended) and Eric Stokes, who went back on IR last week, or big-play wide receiver Christian Watson, there was no panic for Green Bay. Heck, they had gone a lot of the season without all three of those players, anyway. Their young players would see them through, as they had all year.

After all was said and done, Green Bay won the last game of 2023 by a score of 33-10.

Love completed 24 of his 33 passing attempts for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a 125.3 passer rating, his second-highest mark of the season. More than one of those touchdown throws came off his back foot, too. Love showed the ability to improvise and evade pressure, throwing off platform without sacrificing accuracy. Jayden Reed was electric in the first half, catching six passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns. He was pulled at the half due to a chest injury. But it didn’t matter. Love promptly went out and hit Bo Melton for a nine-yard touchdown pass at the end of the third to make the score 30-3. 

Running back Aaron Jones was healthy and heavily involved. He added dimension to the offense, carrying the ball 20 times for 120 yards — a 6.0 yard-per-carry average. 

The game served as a progress report for Love. The last time these two teams met in Week 8, Love looked utterly lost against Minnesota defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ scheme. He completed just 24 of 41 passing attempts for 229 yards, a touchdown and an interception. It was good for a rating of 72.1. His only touchdown pass didn’t come until the third quarter. The Packers lost the game, 24-10.

“I think I’ve grown in a lot of ways,” Love told Melissa Stark after the game on Sunday night. “Showing up to work every week trying to find ways to get better. Understanding how I need to attack these guys after the first game and just growing from the little mistakes. Then just trusting everybody around me and everybody just putting in that worked every week to get better.”

And if that wasn’t enough to convince you this Packers team isn’t done yet, their defense stepped up in a big way. Preston Smith won rep after rep against Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw, one of the better players at the position, and stripped rookie Jaren Hall of the ball in the process of his first sack of the night. The Packers put so much pressure on the Vikings’ young quarterback, head coach Kevin O’Connell pulled Hall at halftime and replaced him with Nick Mullens — literally exhausting all options at the position. 

Green Bay’s defense tallied four sacks. They got to Vikings’ quarterbacks a whopping 14 times. They forced a fumble and nabbed an interception. It was their best performance of the season.

More than the pass rush, there were varying coverages and creativity to boot. Defensive back blitzes from depth? Yup. Stunts up front? Sure. Lukas Van Ness? Finally.

In a game that the Packers needed to keep their postseason hopes alive, they delivered in a big way on the road against a division opponent. Green Bay was up by so much in the fourth quarter (23 points), they gave Love a break and put in backup quarterback Sean Clifford. All of a sudden, the Packers look like a team no one wants to face in the postseason (should they make it there).

The only concern following the game is injuries. Reed didn’t return from the chest injury. Running back A.J. Dillon went out in the third quarter. Josh Myers went out inside two minutes to go with the Packers up by 23. But if those players are ultimately okay, and Green Bay gets Christian Watson or Luke Musgrave back, along with Jaire Alexander on defense, the Packers can put their best foot forward when it means the most.

They’ll get the chance to punch a playoff ticket against who else but the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field this Sunday at 4:25pm p.m. ET. Hats off to the NFL scriptwriters for that one. 

“I’m excited to be at home for that game and put on a show,” said Love.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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